by Ellen Gallagher injects narrative, symbology and African American history into the supposedly ‘pure’ forms of conventional 1960s Minimalism. Subtly containing reference to what the artist refers to as ‘the disembodied ephemera of minstrelsy’, the work superimposes careful, hand-drawn lines over the print of penmanship paper. In Elephant Bones Gallagher draws o
n the scientific hypothesis that elephants may recognise the bones of their families by scent – in this work the suggested form of a trunk or excavated pathway alludes to an unseen animal through hundreds of miniature marks. Known for her erudite, deceptively minimal collages of iconography from pop culture, ancient mythology, American history and twentieth-century art history, Gallagher created Elephant Bones
in 1995 as part of a sequence of works including Oogaboogah
(1994), Oh! Susanna
(1993) and Afro Mountain
(1994) that brought about her recognition and laudation within the fierce New York art world of the early 1990s. While on first glance reminiscent of Agnes Martin, these paintings belie thousands of meticulous cuts, prints and embossings; contortions that satirise Minimalism’s piously clean lines. A rich tapestry, the unevenly-aligned squares of Elephant Bones
evoke patchwork from the Southern states of North America, and, further back in history, the African kente cloth from which such embroidery originated. Likewise in Delirious Hem
(1995), Gallagher transmutes rows of racist imagery such as thick lips and bug eyes into strips of exquisite African cloth, operating an appropriative practice that modulates these forms of oppression into tools of Black and female empowerment. Hugely respected as a cerebral mixed-media artist – with a virtuosic attention to detail and an acute, humorous wit – Gallagher enjoyed her first major solo exhibition in the United Kingdom at the Tate Modern in 2013.
The present work thematically foreshadows some of Gallagher’s best-known work, including the grid-like collages of Pomp-Bang and Bouffant Pride, both made in 2003. Appropriating found advertisements aimed at African American women for hair tonics, skin-lighteners and wigs, all derived from 1930s through to 1970s editions of publications such as Ebony, Our World and Black Stars, Gallagher created grids from such magazine pages. She then conferred to them exaggeratedly scarlet lips, rendered their eyes a bleach-white with scissors, and with plasticine bestowed them with elaborate blonde hairstyles. By so eloquently satirising the mechanism of oppression enacted by magazines, Gallagher retroactively frees the women depicted in the original advertisements; their images now – far from passive in cultural-products testifying only to cruelty – play an active role in Gallagher’s creative practice.